Publication Date

January 24, 2020

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

was glad that the AHA issued a statement on “Domestic Terrorism, Bigotry, and History” (September 2019). It is part of the history profession’s public role to act as a custodian of our country’s collective memory. The statement properly notes a “lack of public awareness of domestic terrorism’s place in American history,” and I strongly agree with the statement’s conclusion that “those [racist and xenophobic] aspects of the nation’s heritage should be exposed and overcome.”

To make this aspiration a reality, though, will require much greater public engagement by historians with the public. One indicator of how far we need to go in this regard is the lack of attention paid in the national media to the centenary of 1919’s “Red Summer.” It would hard to find a more compelling historical precedent to the wave of terrorism and hate crimes we are experiencing today.

Yet the story of the Red Summer, a wave of (usually) white-instigated racial violence that affected scores of cities and rural communities across the country, resulting in hundreds of deaths (mostly African American) and the physical ravaging of black neighborhoods, has been largely passed over in silence. Very good academic monographs exist on these events, including their prewar and wartime antecedents and the terrible Tulsa massacre of 1921. This summer the community of Elaine, Arkansas, the site of one of the worst of the 1919 incidents, staged a thoughtful and comprehensive commemoration of what occurred one hundred years ago, but it received little attention outside of Arkansas.

I hope the AHA will go beyond statements of principle in its efforts to make the American public more aware of just how deeply embedded white racism is in our nation’s cultural fabric. Realizing the power of racism’s historical legacy will give all racial and ethnic groups in our country a more realistic sense of what we are up against—one step of many in an intentional process of reconciliation.

Richard L. Gawthrop
Franklin College (emeritus)

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